[Originally published September 8, 2016]
As one tends to, I’ve paired my most recent playthrough of Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin with a little Sonic 2006. Like aged cheese and fine wine, they are. The complimentary flavours of Good and Great came to a head during a surprising parallel – two moments of beasts and eagles.
There is a baffling element late in Sonic’s campaign, wherein he must allow an eagle – descended from the heavens – to carry him to his destination. In a game full of baffling moments, this is particularlybaffling. ‘Descended from the heavens’ isn’t a joke – a massive eagle apparates, seemingly from nowhere, to carry the player from one point to the next. Sonic 06 will never cease to amaze – this I can promise.
Similarly, The Pursuer – one of Dark Souls 2’s bosses – first appears when a flying eagle drops him onto the battlefield like some feathered Enola Gay. I would also describe this sequence as ‘amazing,’ but it’s a different kind of amazement. It’s more awe, less shock. We’re intimidated by The Pursuer and his eagle, but we laugh at Sonic and his.
Some might chalk this up to the tone. ‘Dark Souls is dark (natch), and Sonicis…’
But that’s not the case. Dark Souls shoulders a burden – to be sure – but it’s also no stranger to levity. From Software knows how to crack wise when it wants to, darkness be damned. Try and join the Covenant of Champions if you don’t believe me.
If the Pursuer’s eagle was meant for comedy, we’d know.
‘The Superficials’ could serve as another quick and dirty explanation behind this Eagle Disparity. ‘Fantasy’ defines the laws of Dark Souls – the few that there are. Drangleic muddles time and space, while drakes and giants roam the land. A massive, knight-carrying eagle, then, is not wholly outside the realm of visual plausibility. Besides Sonic and Crew, however, the laws of biology hold true in the world of Sonic 06. Humans are humans. Dogs are dogs. Birds are birds. Shouldn’t eagles be eagles? This accounts for some of the Sonic 06 eagle’s ‘surprise comedy’ – we laugh because this broken rule catches us off guard. But we don’t laugh at a broken rule – we laugh because of our broken expectations.
Sonic 06 tricks us into thinking we know everything. It transplants real-world locations (Venice). It gives the player simple, easy-to-understand goals (Stop bad guy. Save princess). It tropes off of anime (DBZ – the Trunks saga). We have literally seen this story before. Our brains react by setting up walls of visual-narrative boundaries, and Sonic 06 relentlesslybreaks them. It does so completely unintentionally, of course, but it succeeds at Bad/Good comedy for this very reason. It fails to understand the implicit expectations it imbues in the mind of the player, and so we laugh when a giant eagle appears for absolutely no reason whatsoever.
By comparison, Dark Souls 2 makes clear that it provides a boundless journey of mystery. Even at the end – when the player can sit atop the throne of want (veni, vidi, vici, y’all) – the journey, and it’s meaning, will remain beyond the players understanding.
“One day, you will stand before [Drangleic’s] decrepit gate. Without really knowing why…”
Dark Souls 2 plays with space and time in a way meant to relentlessly displace the player. They’re meant to accept, rather than understand. Anything can happen, and it will still make sense. This ambivalence gives From Software a lot of leeway with their visuals. It gives them the ability to make a giant knight-carrying eagle frightening, rather than laughable.
Comedy, fear, joy – all of it – is about expectation. It’s about what rules you set up, and how – and if – you choose to break them. It’s why Dark Souls 2 and Sonic 06 have wonderful, great eagles – even if they’re great for very different reasons.
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